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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Crime a Key Issue in Race for Top Lawman

Brown and Poochigian battle over criminal justice credentials as they campaign for attorney general.

September 29, 2006|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — His brow furrowed in concentration, Mayor Jerry Brown sat before a police computer, tracking a parolee by global positioning satellite. It was a chance to appraise the latest law-and-order technology he helped bring to this city -- and bolster his crime-fighting credibility as the Democratic candidate for state attorney general.

Three hundred miles south, his Republican opponent, state Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno, vowed at a Los Angeles conference on DNA policing that as attorney general he would boost "CSI"-style forensics. He also jabbed at Brown, noting that Oakland police failed for a year to nab a child molester identified by DNA, allowing him to molest again.

Crime might trail education and illegal immigration in surveys of what is important to Californians, but it still commands center stage in the race for top state lawman.

In television ads and on the stump, Brown and Poochigian are warring over criminal justice credentials and crime-fighting philosophies. Brown calls Poochigian, a three-term legislator, an extremist on the conservative right. Poochigian labels Brown, a two-term former governor and three-time presidential contender, an extremist of the liberal left.

Brown has reinvented himself in Oakland as a mayor unafraid to live in a high-crime neighborhood and eager to support the needs of local police. He now has endorsements from the California Police Chiefs Assn. and, in a television ad playing around the state, ridicules Poochigian for voting in 2004 against legislation banning .50-caliber sniper rifles.

Poochigian and his campaign team aren't buying the 68-year-old mayor's criminal justice conversion.

They've dubbed the Democrat a "fictional crime fighter" and focused on his "Gov. Moonbeam" past: Brown's veto of the death penalty in 1977, the recall of state Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird after she helped block more than 60 executions, his opposition to the state Victims' Bill of Rights, and lefty pronouncements on talk radio in the mid-1990s.

The Republican also has highlighted a spike in Oakland crime this year. The city of 300,000 was hit by 111 murders in nine months, a pace that by year's end could double the 60 homicides that occurred in 1999, Brown's first year in office.

"He's promising to inflict the same punishment on California that he has on the good people of Oakland," Poochigian said.

Brown concedes that he is troubled by Oakland's violent crime, much of it related to gangs and drugs. But he also believes a more accurate assessment compares his whole eight-year tenure to that of previous mayors. If the statistics are sliced that way, serious crime has fallen 30% more in the Brown years than under his Oakland predecessors.

Poochigian's criticism, Brown says, is political rhetoric.

"I don't think he's ever been in the position of dealing with a police force in an operations sense," Brown said. "He doesn't know the challenges. What has Chuck Poochigian ever done?"

Poochigian remains little known outside the statehouse; four of five voters in an August poll -- the most recent survey data available -- had no opinion of him. And his own campaign has focused largely on Brown.

A lawyer and former top aide to two Republican governors, Poochigian has in his dozen years in the Legislature forged a reputation as an affable conservative popular on both sides of the aisle. During his last years in the state Senate, he was vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Poochigian was principal co-author of a law signed by the governor last week that will help keep sexual predators behind bars longer and increase parole supervision. He is also co-chairman of the campaign for Proposition 83, which would restrict where sex offenders can live after their release.

This year, he pushed through a law requiring authorities to track identity theft crimes. But he failed to win approval of bills to boost penalties for identity theft and "phishing," the use of e-mail to deceive consumers into releasing private information.

Poochigian also helped fight a ballot measure in 2004 that would have weakened the state's three-strikes law, and earlier this year he battled legislation that would have placed a moratorium on capital punishment.

Fighting gun control is "not part of any agenda of mine," Poochigian said, noting that he voted this year to authorize civil penalties for anyone who creates a nuisance by using assault weapons or large-caliber rifles. Poochigian has also sponsored legislation to boost penalties for criminals who use guns.

Though an opponent of prison reformers -- he says they coddle criminals -- Poochigian was one of the few Republicans to support Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's unsuccessful plan this year to buff up rehabilitation efforts in state penitentiaries. But more than anything, Poochigian fashions himself as a champion of crime victims.

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